Workshy Whitehall: why can’t the PM get his civil servants back to work?

Too few civil servants are returning to the office

23 April 2022

9:00 AM

23 April 2022

9:00 AM

‘Mother nature,’ says Boris Johnson, ‘does not like working from home.’ The Prime Minister wants workers to return to offices so they can have the ‘stimulus of exchange and competition’. His ministers are just as evangelical. Kwasi Kwarteng, the Business Secretary, says he favours ‘being able to interact directly’ with colleagues and Rishi Sunak has spoken about how young people need the office space to learn. The nation’s employers should, they say, get their staff back to their desks.

Yet nine months since the end of lockdown and tumbleweed is still blowing through the corridors of power. When Jacob Rees-Mogg conducted an audit to see how many Whitehall desks were occupied on 4 April, it found the answer was just a quarter at the Education and the Work and Pensions departments. In the Foreign Office, it was less than a third. On average, almost half of Whitehall desks were empty. Steve Barclay, the cabinet officer minister, had promised that the government would ‘lead the way’ in returning to work from January – but if that is the case then civil servants are simply refusing to follow. No wonder Johnson now sees the army as the solution to any given domestic problem: soldiers report for duty in a way that he is unable to persuade civil servants to do.

Civil service chiefs say the mandarins are back at work, but using ‘hybrid working’: two or three days in the office and the rest at home. Union bosses point to Johnson’s competing desire to ‘level up’ areas outside London to justify this. If 20,000 jobs are set to be moved out of the capital anyway, why bring existing staff back into SW1? And then there are the practicalities of office working. The size of the government estate has been shrunk by more than 30 per cent since 2010 as part of a policy to sell off Whitehall sites. Yet the civil service headcount has grown a quarter since 2016.

Poor estate planning and the growth of the state under Johnson mean there are not enough desks to accommodate the army of bureaucrats if they did all come back. In a farcical example of short-term thinking, the Treasury still pays thousands to the Cabinet Office for use of extra office space, despite the fact just two in five staff showed up on the day of Rees-Mogg’s audit.

The civil service is fighting hard to keep the idea that showing up for work need not be obligatory. Its trade union, First Division Association, dislikes ministers issuing orders at all, saying they should not be ‘interfering’. A poll showed (unsurprisingly) that 97 per cent of civil servants want to keep the option of working from home. It’s easy to see the attractions. People who previously worked full-time in Whitehall still receive their special salary boosts – known as ‘London weighting’ – worth around £4,000 to cover the costs of working and travelling in the city. Pay rises also do not distinguish between those who are returning to office and those who aren’t.

It could be argued that it doesn’t matter where civil servants are as long as the work gets done. After all, look outside Whitehall: Deloitte, one of Britain’s biggest accountancy firms, has told staff they can decide for themselves how often they work from home and has closed 250,000 square feet of London office space. Official UK productivity figures actually recorded a rise last year, a figure highlighted by those who say that home working doesn’t hurt.

But what works for accountants does not necessarily work for government departments where communication and accountability are crucial. Elizabeth Denham, then the £180,000-a-year Information Commissioner, decided after the first lockdown to pack up and do her job 4,500 miles away in her native British Columbia. (Her move was only belatedly discovered after – ironically – a Freedom of Information request showed she was working from a location within the Pacific Time Zone.) Since west Canada is eight hours behind the UK, such a decision had obvious consequences for the privacy watchdog’s working habits.

Then there was the withdrawal from Kabul in August, when translators and others deemed at risk from the Taliban applied to Whitehall to be evacuated. During the crisis, the Foreign Office doggedly clung to a culture of eight-hour working days. Staff were urged not to work longer in case others felt pressured to do the same. Raphael Marshall, a Foreign Office desk officer involved in the evacuation, later revealed that emails with desperate messages from Afghans were either not opened or were just scanned without any details being logged in so ministers could say that they had been read.

‘Staffing shortages were exacerbated by some staff working from home,’ he said, ‘which hampered communication. This was on occasion significant in a context where policy was poorly defined and the situation unclear.’ Sir Philip Barton, the most senior Foreign Office civil servant, stayed on holiday throughout the worst of the crisis and only returned from his family’s Dordogne chateau 11 days after Kabul fell.

The Afghan debacle reflects a story told by many younger officials: they are keen to come into the office, but are discouraged by more senior staff who seek to preserve the new work-from-home culture. As one puts it: ‘If someone in another department was ignoring my emails, I used to walk across Whitehall to go and speak to them face to face. Now they can simply hide behind their screen – it’s maddening.’ The Ukraine crisis has been a tacit admission of the importance of physical co-location: mandarins working on the British response have been told they need to be at their desks every day.

Conscientious civil servants are aware of (and often outraged by) scams being pulled by less industrious colleagues, who use the near-absence of supervision to develop a culture of skiving, from ‘compressed working hours’ downwards. There are ‘development days’ off work and weekly wellbeing hours – paid for by the taxpayer – intended to nurture ‘mental and/or physical health’ on top of the daily lunch hour. One official working from home confesses that he often books a ‘meeting’ and then uses the time to go to the gym because no one senior checks on or disturbs him. Some of the online training for ‘mandatory professional development’ seems less than rigorous too. One caseworker boasts on LinkedIn of ‘doing some civil service learning courses’ while watching daytime TV.

If there is no supervision across government agencies, then things can go badly wrong. It was recently revealed that for significant periods of the pandemic 3,400 civil servants at the DVLA (more than half the staff) had done no work on full pay. Months later, there were still almost 2,000 DVLA workers raking it in while not working.

Blockages in one part of the system affect it elsewhere. One MP says that, at the end of last year, a quarter of all constituency correspondence was about driving-licence backlogs. Home working meant there were huge delays in processing paper-based applications. Passports, planning applications and HMRC rebates have all been affected.

The prosecution backlog is perhaps the worst of all. ‘It’s so bad that if someone is raped today it will take two years before the perpetrator would be in court,’ says one minister. ‘The magistrates’ courts managed to carry on, but the criminal courts just downed tools. Justice delayed is justice denied – and we’re now denying justice on a mass scale.’ The most recent figures show that there were 58,000 cases outstanding in the Crown Court in the final quarter of last year, down just 2 per cent on the previous quarter.

The asylum backlog could arguably have been cleared during lockdown, given the country’s emergency border closures. Instead, the number of people awaiting a decision doubled to 85,000. Home working has also been cited as a factor in the visa delays for Ukrainian refugees.

Ultimately, civil servants themselves could lose out from Whitehall’s new working arrangements. ‘Previously we could at least learn at our desks from older colleagues about how a department works,’ says one younger official. ‘Now that ability has been much more curtailed.’

The strengths of the civil service are supposedly its permanence, institutional knowledge and ability to produce ‘good all-rounders’. Hybrid working puts all that at risk. The Prime Minister now looks simply unable to control his government – incapable of reversing the effects of the ‘work from home’ orders he once imposed.

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